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Sept. 14 — Integrity

I'm not here to bash anybody, name names, accuse, or even hint at who's doing what wrong. There have been so many reports of falsified data, and even more conjecture, that it would be silly to single out the one or two rumors most likely to be true. I'm not here to talk about the integrity of people; I'm addressing the integrity of data.

"File Corrupted"

How many times have we seen that message on our computer monitor? And we know it means we're in trouble. We've lost valuable data.

People depend on data. They use it to make decisions.

Granted that many people don't look at enough data, don't try to find out the underlying assumptions, and don't know how to interpret the data they do find. Those people who do put the time and effort into analyzing data need a system based on real data. That's why it's illegal to turn back the odometer (mileage gauge) on a car or to lie about the age of the roof on the house you're selling. People are making important life decisions, often involving a lot of money, based on the objective accuracy of the data. Now some person might buy the orange car because it's orange, even if it's been in three accidents; and someone might love a house enough to buy it and put on a new roof. They're allowed to have preferences. But those must be based on fairly accurate knowledge. In law, that's a doctrine called "informed consent." You can choose to buy a faulty house or car. But the seller can't misrepresent the faults.

Law school may not cost as much as a house, but it certainly costs way more than a car. (There are parts of the country where three years of school actually do cost more than a house.) Faulty data will change people's decisions — about where to apply, where to go if the applicant is lucky enough to have multiple offers, whether it's worth the cost of relocating.

So I'm not going to talk about the integrity of people. I know that when people feel pressured by deans, US News rankings, and alumni donors, they have hard choices to make. Some people think they're smart enough to not get caught.  I've always been smart enough to know I'm not that smart, so I don't cheat.  Just like knowing I'm not the lucky sort, so I stay out of casinos.  How many people lose large chunks of money thinking their luck will change?

Other people think, "I need this job.  I have kids, car payments, a house... so I won't notice that person doing something wrong, or I'll justify my doing something wrong. What difference does it make anyway? Our class is the same whether I report a median of 160 or 162." 

But that's not true.  An applicant with a 159 might take a shot if the median is 160, but if the published median is a 162, she might not.  And someone studying for the LSAT and aiming for a 162 might get depressed and give up, or get scared and screw up.  False data affects who applies. 

And that's the message I'd like everyone to think about. A lack of personal integrity is your problem; a lack of the data's integrity is everyone's.

Whether it's the number reported on a glucose monitor or blood pressure cuff, the balance in a bank account, or the number of seats available in the poverty law clinic, people make decisions based on it. It doesn't matter whether the number is faulty because of a personal sin or because of a mechanical malfunction: either way, lives are affected.

Every person who relies on data has an obligation to check and double-check. If numbers don't seem right to me, I cross-check against another source, or pick up the phone. But most applicants don't have the breadth of experience to know whether a number "seems right," and don't have the ability to call a few admissions officers and double-check. You owe it to the applicants to give them meaningful data.

Head off accusations of misrepresentation the easy way: don't misrepresent. It's one thing to complain about applicants who have no comprehension of the data. It's another thing to give them data that's deliberately misleading. Integrity has its own value. You may not think you owe it to yourself, or to the applicants; but I think you owe it to the profession.


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